What does the word “slavery” bring to mind? An institution of shameful enslavement long abolished? Many would be surprised to know that a form of modern slavery, known as human trafficking, is a thriving business worldwide and a global human rights concern.
An informational session on the subject was held on Jan. 10 at Faith United Methodist Church on Dorset Street. Panelists included Edith Klimoski, Director of Give Way to Freedom, an Essex-based private foundation which provides training and direct services to victims; Priscilla White, Department of Children and Families Child Victim Treatment Director; Raenetta Liberty, Forensic Nurse Coordinator for the state and University of Vermont Medical Center; Detective Corporal Krystal Wrinn, Chittenden Unit Special Investigator with the Burlington Police Department; and Kim Colville of the Vermont Center for Independent Living Advocate.
The forum was sponsored by the Alpha chapter of Delta Kappa Gamma, an organization of leading women educators, and Give Way to Freedom, an Essex-based private operating foundation that provides training, outreach and direct services to potential victims, and awards grants for domestic and international projects.
Men, women, and children worldwide are victims of modern-day slavery. Human trafficking is defined by the United Nations as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons by improper means (force, abduction, fraud, or coercion) for an improper purpose including forced labor or sexual exploitation.” The International Labor Organization estimates that 40 million people were enslaved at any given time in 2016.
Vermont is not immune. According to Vermont’s Human Trafficking Task Force, between 2014 and mid-2017, there were over 250 suspected incidents of trafficking in Chittenden County alone.
January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, the perfect time to learn what can be done to help eradicate a crime that gravely violates the most basic human rights.
Vermont is especially vulnerable, Klimoski noted, due to poverty, highways running through the state acting as hubs for trafficking, lack of professional training, housing insecurity, and substance abuse.
Human trafficking is the fastest growing crime worldwide, and is tied with arms dealing as the second most profitable illegal business, generating an estimated $150 billion in 2016. Compared to drugs and arms, there is limited authoritative prohibition, and trafficking relies on re-usable resources. In other words, the same victim is used repeatedly. Trafficking is often hidden in plain sight – people working in local businesses, or for themselves, may be a victim.
Domestic work is just one common sector for trafficking. Klimoski explained that diplomats bring workers into their homes, “keeping them trapped.” Other common industries include prostitution, restaurant work, massage parlors, housekeeping, agriculture, and construction. According to Klimoski, in Vermont a peddler might be placed on the street by an individual or gang under the guise of being a magazine salesperson. A customer might think the person selling the magazine profits from the sale, but that money might actually go into the pocket of a trafficker. Parents are trafficking their children, Liberty added at the forum. Spouses are trafficking spouses. Boyfriends are trafficking girlfriends.
In one case Klimoski described, a family lured a woman from the Philippines to the U.S. with the promise she’d be paid decent wages as a housekeeper, then took her travel documents soon after she arrived, threatened her with violence, and forced her to work 16-hour days. Her bedroom was a closet, her bed a mattress on the floor. The housekeeper was enslaved for 18 years before someone outside of the family sensed something was wrong, and reported the case to authorities.
Liberty said the average time a victim is subject to such conditions is eight years. As with domestic violence, people are afraid to leave because they’re familiar with their situation, and believe they have no other options. Some fear they’ll be prosecuted for past crimes. Others are supplied with drugs by their perpetrators and are dependent on them. Victims who don’t speak English may feel isolated. Often times, a victim is isolated simply by shame.
Colville explained that people with disabilities are particularly vulnerable, since they often rely on others for assistance. Statistical data shows they are two and a half times as likely to be victims of crimes than those who aren’t disabled. Also, those who are disabled often will not go to the authorities for fear they’ll lose their independence, especially if caregivers are the perpetrators, she said.
Along with teachers, “most nurses are good at making a quick assessment,” when identifying trafficking victims, Liberty said. People who repeatedly go to the hospital emergency room with the same injuries appear malnourished, or have someone with them who does all the talking, are just a few red flags.
White talked about the importance of looking closely at minors. Teachers, school nurses and school resource officers can be helpful in these cases, watching for minors who present with sexually transmitted diseases, or have a history of substance abuse and running away. Some may be over-protective of their cell phones, have an older boyfriend or girlfriend, or have tattoos that mark them as a trafficker’s property.
By the time the police become involved, “Victims might have been in the hospital eight times,” Det. Winn said. “Maybe they’ve been in their situation since they were 12, and now they’re 25.” Sometimes officers see indicators of trafficking during routine traffic stops, or while investigating domestic abuse or missing children and runaway cases.
“We’re victim-driven,” Winn said. “We go at the pace of the person we’re working with,” adding that “Victims need rapport building, and the trauma may make it hard to recall events.”
Safety, she emphasized, takes priority.
Last fall, Vermont State Police and the Vermont Center for Crime Victim Services received a $1.2 million Justice Department grant, enabling them to work with the Vermont Human Trafficking Task Force to put an end to the exploitation of human beings for labor and commercial sex. Klimoski said a portion of grant monies were used to hire a human trafficking case manager last year in South Burlington. So far, she’s coordinated services with 45 people. Grant monies will be used to hire an additional case manager in southern Vermont.
The panel at the Jan. 10 forum said there are actions people can take to help fight human trafficking locally. Be aware. Observe. Be concerned when a young woman is seen nervously panhandling while being watched over by one or two men. Pay attention when a child becomes secretive about who she’s talking with on her cellphone, and take notice of the older boyfriend who does all the talking.
Anonymous reports about suspected cases of human trafficking can be made at https://vsp.vermont.gov/tipsubmit. Or text “VTIPS” to 274637 (CRIMES). Or call Vermont 211.
To learn about how purchases might be contributing to trafficking, go to http://slaveryfootprint.org/#where_do_you_live
Vermont human trafficking legislation: http://www.leg.state.vt.us/docs/2012/Acts/ACT055.pdf